When Emeida Vasquez volunteers to help distribute free food to South Bronx seniors like herself, she usually arrives at the Field of Dreams on E. 167th Street around 6 a.m. to get an early start. Several hundred seniors normally line up there for hours on the third Friday of every month, for Urban Heath Plan’s pantry.
But on the frigid Friday before Thanksgiving last week, the pantry was moved inside the district office of Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. at the corner of Westchester Avenue and Southern Boulevard so the seniors could come into the heated office to get their food after waiting in the block-long line in the cold.
Vasquez, 68, was doing what she usually does on those Fridays: stand outside with the other seniors, calling out numbers for them to get their food. So she was startled when one of the construction workers working on a sewer line project in front of Salamanca’s office heckled her, calling out random numbers to confuse Vasquez and the seniors she was trying to help.
When Urban Health Plan supervisor and Hunts Point resident Jamine Williams urged the worker to stop mocking the seniors, the worker instead responded with profanities, and told her to “get the f…out.” Another construction worker then joined in the mockery, telling Williams “you need to get these people out of here,” and “this is what you get in a neighborhood like this.”
Outraged on behalf of the seniors, Williams posted a photo of the offending construction worker on her Facebook page later that day, drawing the attention of Urban Health Plan administrators, as well as Salamanca’s.
Parkchester resident Mary McDonald, 65, recalls that the usual 300-or-so black and Latino seniors had been waiting in line when the two workers, who were “sitting around, smoking cigarettes, unproductive,” began taunting her and the others.
“To laugh and ridicule those people, with their pushcarts and walkers, is just deplorable,” said McDonald.
On Monday morning, several of the seniors joined Salamanca and dozens of other angry area residents at that corner to demand that the city cut off its $47 million contract with the company that employs the offending workers, Westchester-based Halcyon Construction Corp.,. Halcyon has been overseeing a water and sewer project at the corner between Salamanca’s office and Urban Health Plan’s headquarters since early this year. Salamanca and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo led the crowd in chants of “hey hey, ho ho Halcyon has got to go,” while the company’s workers continued to operate noisy equipment a few feet away.
Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez, President and CEO of Urban Health Plan, told the protesters that workers who come to the South Bronx to make their living should leave their prejudices at home or not come at all.
“If we would have done that in their communities, we would have been arrested and jailed up,” said Hernandez.
Megaphone in hand, Salamanca addressed a representative from the city’s Department of Design and Construction, urging him to “take that message back to the city. Shame on you.”
However, that city representative, Ian Michaels, gave no indication in an email to the Express hours after the protest that the agency is planning to comply with the demand that the company be removed.
“Halcyon’s employee’s behavior was unacceptable,” Michaels wrote. “The employee and the crew involved in the incident have been removed from the job.”
Although Halcyon has said it fired the worker who ridiculed the throng, Salamanca told the protesters that “that’s not enough. We want our $47 million back.” Halcyon has apologized to the councilman and said it will provide additional training to its employees to enforce proper job site behavior.
Standing by with a dozen out-of-work Bronxites in hard hats, David Rodriguez, the president and field director for United Hispanic Construction Workers, Inc. (UHCW), turned down Salamanca’s offer to take the megaphone and address the protesters to denounce Halcyon. “What I have to say isn’t going to be nice,” said Rodriguez.
“You know how they remedy this?” said Rodriguez, later that afternoon in the organization’s Dawson Street headquarters. “By putting some people from the area to work. Give us real jobs,” not low-paying jobs as traffic monitors, he said.
“We have people that can do this work,” he said, including many union members. The organization includes about 300 members, estimated Rodriguez, who helps find construction sites around the Bronx for members. Last March, he said, he drove by the Westchester Avenue site and urged the foreman to hire local workers, to no avail.
One of those standing with Rodriguez in his hard hat, Crotona resident Mark Pearman, 56, said that despite having several certifications, he has been turned down at the job site “numerous times.This is a very frustrating situation. I should have been able to get a job in my own community.”
Rodriguez pointed out that “there’s not one person of color” working at the site.